Bilby Bites - the food blog from Bilby Marketing

ASK Italian Exeter

Things have been very quiet on the blog front for some time. I have been to several wonderful restaurants and cafés over the past 12 months, but I have also been steadily growing my marketing business and that has left me little time to write blog posts. It became a case of 'something has got to give' and, very sadly, my food writing was the 'thing'. That was until just over a week ago, when a very nice lady from a PR agency in London contacted me to ask if I would like to cover an event at ASK Italian in Exeter, which I knew better as just ASK. It turns out that ASK are in the middle of a bit of a renaissance period and due to my immersion in online marketing for months on end, I had clean missed it. I was about to be pleasantly surprised.

Now there was a dilemma with this invitation that had me thinking … ASK Italian is NOT an independent, local restaurant, which is what my blog has largely been focussed on. Only once previously, with regards to Boston Tea Party, have I had to deliberate on whether I was compromising my blog principles. There were two things that turned my head on this project - the first was the involvement of a Michelin starred chef in Theo Randall, and the second that it was helping to raise money for Great Ormond Street Hospital Children's Charity (GOSHCC). This particular Sunday evening event was in celebration of the achievements of several cyclists and walkers undertaking a Grand Tour to raise money for GOSHCC, with visits to several ASK Italian restaurants from Aberdeen to Truro. In addition to these two worthy points, Italian food has always been my favourite cuisine. The simplicity, warmth - not temperature, but soul satisfaction - and intense flavour of Italian dishes is what I crave most of the time. Nothing makes me happier than a bowl of meatballs and penne pasta. Italian food is all about regional specialities and local produce, so whilst this restaurant has very little to do with the West Country and it's local producers, the parallels between ASK's values and my own, are difficult to ignore.

So, we (JC and myself) arrived at the restaurant and were handed a glass of Moscato d'Asti with crushed raspberries. A great start for me. Our hosts seated us and we were almost immediately introduced to Theo Randall who explained the ASK Italian project in more detail. ASK teamed up with Theo about three years ago and work with Theo as an 'expert friend' - the relationship is simpatico. After 17 years at The River Café, contributions to The Silver Spoon and high praise from such fellow chefs Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver as well as restaurant critic Jay Rayner (for his restaurant Theo Randall at The InterContinental), Theo clearly deserves his title of 'expert friend'. Theo was enthusiastic about his work with ASK Italian, projecting a lovely, quiet professionalism that I assume has been developed throughout a career spent researching and perfecting his craft. ASK Italian restaurants are located in roughly 30 sites around the country and are dedicated to producing authentic - an overused, but appropriate term - Italian meals at an affordable price. Produce is imported from Italy, including cold pressed olive oil, buffalo mozzarella, tomatoes and Calabria sundried oregano. The pizzas are made with semolina flour and each dish is fuss free. The quality of the ingredients are without a doubt, the focus.

Having met our fellow diners, we were soon given our Antipasti course, a rustic, shared board - literally a wooden board - covered with Milano and finochhiona salami, prosciutto, tomato crostini, buffalo mozzarella, green olives and rocket. The olives were some of the best I have tried recently, as was the mozzarella. The Primi course followed some time after, as the restaurant was bursting with diners in support of the charity event and our table was disrupted by a minor emergency which resulted in a third of the table leaving half way through the meal. By the time our Ravioli di Porcini course reached us I was fully geared up to eat and it didn't last long. This was enjoyable and the Porcini mushroom flavour was distinct, but the sauce was a little on the creamy side for my personal taste. What I was truly holding out for was the Secondi course. Both JC and I ordered the pork belly. In fact, with just four of us out of ten left on the table, 75% of us opted for the pork belly, with Sea Bass al Forno in the minority. The Sea Bass is cooked in the oven 'al forno' with tomatoes and was tender and juicy. My angelic, healthy self thought I should have gone with this option, but once I tried the pork belly I forgot all about the piscine chappy. The pork belly was slightly sweet, sticky and served with roast potatoes and greens. The portion size was spot on. This was definitely my favourite course and clinched my decision to return to ASK Italian off my own steam.

Finally, the dessert sharing board was a wonderful end to a very fine Sunday evening. The Warm Chocolate and Almond cake was slightly too crumbly and grainy in texture for me, the Italian Cheesecake a little too simple, but I'm fairly certain this was due to the outstanding nature of the Warm Almond, Plum and Pistachio Tart in comparison. I could have done with a little cream or ice cream, but perhaps I had turned greedy by this point. JC enjoyed all three desserts equally.

Theo told me during our short chat, that the staff at all of the restaurants, including Exeter, are thrilled to be cooking such wonderful food and this feeling was palpable. All of the staff I encountered were attentive and friendly.There were several highlights during the evening for me: meeting Theo Randall (of course), gaining a sense of the heart and soul that ASK have thrown into their relationship with Theo in an attempt to create an Italian food experience that is genuine and enjoyable and, finally, the purity with which they are involved in fundraising for GOSHCC. I understand this will sound suspiciously like an afterthought, but during the evening a presentation was made to a young patient of Great Ormond Street Hospital on behalf of ASK and the moment was real and heartfelt. I've had a number of evenings in that gorgeous building that houses ASK on Cathedral Green over the years, but this one was quite special. I very much like what ASK Italian are doing right now.

As part of the fundraising project for GOSHCC, Theo has been involved in the production of the ASK Italian Cookbook which is full of traditional Italian recipes, cooking tips and detail on ingredients. Buy the book in support of GOSHCC at Amazon.co.uk and most other leading bookstores.